Benedict XVI: A Life Volume II:
Professor and Prefect to Pope and
Pope Emeritus 1966-the Present
by Peter Seewald
Bloomsbury Continuum, £30
The second volume of Peter Seewald’s authorised biography of Joseph Ratzinger opens with him a professor at Tübingen University, a colleague of Hans Küng – both theologians with a dazzling reputation but very different views on the future of the Church. Ratzinger who, as the young peritus of Cardinal Frings of Cologne, had had considerable influence on the decrees of Vatican II, was now “deeply disturbed” by what had followed in its aftermath – the falsification of the council by scholars who saw themselves as the true custodians of knowledge that should no longer be subordinate to church leaders. “These people wanted to make themselves cheaply interesting by selling old liberal stocks as new Catholic theology”. One such was Küng whose books questioning established tenets of Catholic belief were bestsellers.
Theological revisionism was part of the wholesale rejection of authority of any kind, culminating in the worldwide student revolts of 1968. The university of Tübingen was not exempt but here Ratzinger makes clear that “he was not in the firing-line during the student disturbances”; that he was always on good terms with his students and was certainly not driven out of his professorship in Tübingen. He chose to move to the University of Regensburg in his beloved Bavaria “because it would be peaceful there”, and so conducive to a scholarly life.
The year 1968 was also when Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae which Ratzinger criticises in his conversations with Seewald. “There are some lights in it, but the way it was presented was on a different wavelength from my own. It would have been written differently, the natural law justification not so static, narrow and unhistorical.” Humanae Vitae, though consistent with Casti Connubii – the 1930 encyclical from Pope Pius XI – was widely rejected, and became a useful stick for the partisans of “the spirit of Vatican II” to belabour the concept of papal authority. Ratzinger’s basic impulse during the Council “was always to release the core of the faith from encrustations and to liberate its power and dynamism”, but not to change the core itself. Now he feared that “while he had won the Council, he was about to lose the post-Council”: the authority of scholars and scholarship had replaced the “confession of faith”, and new discoveries about the “historical Jesus” were regarded as “the decisive basis for theology”.
“If there is a date for Ratzinger’s entry into battle mode,” writes Seewald, “then it is 14 September 1970.” Acknowledging that the Council Fathers “had undoubtedly expected too much”, Ratzinger saw that Vatican II was in danger of being manipulated if not wholly appropriated by interlopers: it was “time for a Reconquista”. As a former peritus and one of the Church’s leading theologians, Ratzinger was qualified to pronounce on the Council’s true meaning. He established the theological review Communio to counter the liberal Concilium but as a Bavarian he was also emotionally engaged: “I remain in the Church,” he said, “because I love it.”
Pope Paul VI also had misgivings about the direction the Church had taken after Vatican II and in 1976 he drew Ratzinger out of academe and made him Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and a year later a Cardinal: he was still only 50 years old: was he up to the job? The German theologian Georg May said of Ratzinger that “anything to do with power, strength, the use of force, is completely alien to him. By nature he is a scholar. So his appointment as archbishop and Prefect of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith was actually against his nature.” “During his time as bishop,” we are told by Seewald, “he introduced a number of reforms,” but failed to stop the burgeoning of the diocesan bureaucracy: 400 under Ratzinger, 1,000 today.
Pope Paul VI died in 1977 and, after the short reign of John Paul I, the cardinals elected the Polish Karol Wojtyla who took the name John Paul II. Wojtyla and Ratzinger had met at the two consistories and discovered that they agreed about what was wrong with the Church. After only six years in Munich, Ratzinger was summoned to Rome by John Paul II as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Wojtyla and Ratzinger were as different as chalk and cheese,” but “the Pope relied on the solid views of the German cardinal-theologian in the whole area of theology and doctrine’.
It is painful now to remember the animosity directed by the self-styled reformers – the partisans of “the spirit of Vatican II” – against the “Polish pope” and his German panzercardinal, Joseph Ratzinger. The issues were birth control, intercommunion, celibacy, authority, the ordination of women, the Tridentine mass, the schismatic Lefebvrites and Liberation Theology. In 1984 Ratzinger published an Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology which “critics saw … as an attack on all efforts to bring about social justice in the Third World”. “In retrospect,” writes Seewald, “Ratzinger’s gaining control in the conflict over liberation theology can be seen as one of the triumphs …as prefect,” but at the time many saw it as giving support to the military juntas. Ratzinger was constantly attacked by the liberal media – in his homeland, Germany, by Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, but also in Britain by Guardian columnists such as Polly Toynbee and Hugo Young.
Within the Church, his adversaries were led by Küng, but there were also bishops such as Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper who sympathised with the liberals. Ratzinger “produced an impressive number of spiritual books” but they were now “relegated to some corner of the bookshops”, whereas those by the dissidents “filled whole shelves”. “Anyone in Germany who had written a doctoral thesis … on Joseph Ratzinger or John Paul II had hardly any chance of getting a professorship.” All this would change, or at least go into abeyance, after the death of John Paul II and Ratzinger’s election as Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict XVI. A Life is in some sense a literary hybrid – a biography with elements of autobiography gleaned from Seewald’s interviews with the pope emeritus. They elucidate the theological controversies from which in time he emerged triumphant, but we also learn of his failings. “Practical government is not my strong point,” Ratzinger admits: he was criticised by many for his appointing Secretary of State his loyal secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Bertone. And there was his domestic staff: after the death of his sister Maria, who had cared for him over the decades, he had to deal with the “hysterical fits, bitter reproaches and floods of tears” of Ingrid Stampa, a musicologist, professor of the viola da gamba, who believed that God wished her to run Pope Benedict’s household; and then the butler, Paolo Gabriele who, seeing disorder and suspecting corruption in the Vatican, took it upon himself to filch documents from the pope’s apartment and pass them on to a journalist.
This was the last straw for Pope Benedict. For decades he had worn the heavy mantel of Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, and seen off those who would destroy the Church. By now a physically enfeebled octogenarian, the time had come to shed the burden. He resigned as pope and retired to a former convent in the Vatican gardens where he now lives, aged 94 – loyal, as he had promised, to his successor but, as he tells Seewald, still following events in the Church.
Piers Paul Read is a biographer and novelist.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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